The encumbrance of banks’ assets has become an issue of growing concern to regulators. Banks have increasingly resorted to secured funding in the wake of the financial crisis and as unsecured funding has become more expensive and generally scarce, while investors have increasingly preferred secured assets in order to mitigate heightened counterparty credit risk.
The incidence of asset encumbrance has been widened by new regulatory requirements for greater collateralisation of credit and liquidity risks under Basel III (and in Europe, Solvency II), the mandatory central clearing of standardised OTC derivatives, the compulsory imposition of initial margins on collateral and stricter collateralisation standards for CCPs.
And asset encumbrance is fostered by the implicit public guarantees against credit risk that have been provided in the past to too-big-to-fail banks and the guarantees against liquidity risk are still being provided by central banks. Currently, the main source of asset encumbrance in a number of European countries is the exceptional liquidity assistance provided by the European Central Bank (ECB).
The ESRB has calculated that the median asset encumbrance of 28 large European banks (encumbered assets/total assets, with repos netted against reverse repos) increased from 7% in 2007 to 27% by 2011, although the degree of asset encumbrance varies very widely, even within Europe, between countries and between institutions.
What is asset encumbrance?
Legally-speaking, asset encumbrance is a claim against a property by another party. In finance, such claims have traditionally taken the form of security interests, such as pledges, given on assets by a borrower to a lender.
In other words, giving collateral encumbers assets. If the borrower defaults, the secured lender has the right to liquidate the asset/collateral and recover his cash. He is therefore given preference over unsecured creditors, who are said to be ‘structurally subordinated’ in terms of their priority in bankruptcy.
In measuring encumbrance, regulators include, not just assets as recorded on the balance sheet, but also financial instruments received as collateral and not recorded on the balance sheet of the holder (because the asset has been pledged or because, as in the case of a repo, because the collateral asset remains on the balance sheet of the giver in order to reflect the fact that the risk and return on the asset has been restored to the give). The EU Capital Requirement Regulation (CRR) says, ‘… an asset is considered encumbered if it has been pledged or if it is subject to any form of arrangement to secure, collateralise or credit enhance any transaction from which it cannot be freely withdrawn’. Thus, the European Banking Authority (EBA) has defined asset encumbrance as:
What problems are created by asset encumbrance?
The main focus of regulatory concern about asset encumbrance is on: the impact on the credit risk of unsecured depositors; the problems created for deposit insurance/guarantee schemes and bail-ins; and increased liquidity risk on secured lenders.
Encumbrance reduces the assets available to the liquidator in the event of a default by a bank and therefore the recovery rate of its depositors and other unsecured bank creditors. As a result, wider asset encumbrance forces depositors to rely on insurance and guarantee schemes, usually to the cost of the public. The risk to unsecured investors from wider asset encumbrance may also make long-term unsecured debt too expensive for banks to issue, thereby limiting the quantity of these assets available for ‘bail-ins’ under emerging recovery and resolution regimes, and exposing tax-payers once again to the cost of rescuing failing banks.
Regulators would also like to see sufficient unencumbered assets remaining on banks’ balance sheets to strengthen their resilience by providing a liquidity buffer against roll-over risk in difficult market conditions. In stressed markets, it is expected that unsecured funding would be tightly constrained given the likely shift in investor preferences towards secured assets. A buffer of unencumbered assets could be sold or repoed out (if necessary to a central bank).
In addition, a liquidity buffer of unencumbered assets would help protect against contingent asset encumbrance. Collateral makes a bank’s liquidity profile sensitive to changes in the market value of that collateral. Whenever the value of collateral decreases, a borrower is usually called upon to provide additional collateral in the form of a margin. New borrowing will also attract higher haircuts on collateral. Banks may also face unexpected future liquidity needs, such as calls on committed credit lines. In addition, there is the risk of losses being realised during liquidation of collateral after a default, which would further reduce the recovery rate for secured lenders. And as these contingencies are realised during financial stress, worsening asset encumbrance may pro-cyclically amplify the stress in a way that is non-linear. The problem is more acute at higher levels of asset encumbrance.
Asset encumbrance has traditionally been associated with covered bonds in the capital market but regulators are now looking at encumbrance in the short-term funding markets, in particular, at the role of repo.
At this stage, regulatory proposals are limited to the monitoring of asset encumbrance and requirements on banks to be more transparent in their reporting, so that unsecured creditors can more accurately assess the risk posed to their recovery rate by asset encumbrance. However, some countries impose prudential limits on the issuance of covered bonds in order to contain asset encumbrance and others may follow.
What is the impact on repo on asset encumbrance?
One concern about the current asset encumbrance monitoring proposals, which have been elaborated in Europe by the EBA, is that they try to add apples to oranges. By measuring encumbrance simply in terms of the nominal value of collateral, they incorrectly assume one unit of collateral has the same economic impact regardless of the instrument to which it is attached.
Consider collateral pledged by an institution to cover the exposure on a derivatives contract. The entire amount of collateral so pledged is encumbered. Unsecured creditors of the pledgor do not have access to those assets in a bankruptcy.
Now, consider a repo. Take a simple example. Bank A has cash assets of 10 funded with liabilities in the form of 5 of equity capital and 5 of unsecured deposits. Its balance sheet looks thus: